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The Republican Party, you may have heard by now, has a lot of news to celebrate after last week’s elections. In Virginia, a state that President Biden won by 10 points last year, it took back the governor’s mansion, a feat it hadn’t managed in over a decade. Republicans also came within striking distance of doing the same in New Jersey, a more deeply blue state that Biden won by about 16 points. And in New York, Democrats lost ground in local races too.
What does the G.O.P.’s rebound tell us about how the electorate is changing, and what does it portend for the country’s political future in 2022 and beyond?
The thermostat strikes back
In 1995, the political scientist Christopher Wlezien developed a theory known as the thermostatic model of American politics: The idea, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explains, is “to think of the electorate as a person adjusting their thermostat: When the political environment gets ‘too hot’ for their liking, they turn the thermostat down. When it gets ‘too cold,’ they turn it back up.”
In practice, the thermostatic nature of public opinion means that the president’s party tends to struggle in off-year elections. Such swings have been observed for decades:
The effect occurs for two reasons, The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. explains. “First, there is often a turnout gap that favors the party that doesn’t control the White House,” he writes. “Off-year elections have much lower turnout than presidential ones, but typically more people from the party that doesn’t control the presidency are motivated to vote in opposition to whatever the incumbent president is doing.” A turnout gap was certainly in evidence last week.
The second reason for thermostatic backlash is that some voters switch from the president’s party, which also appears to have happened last week: Exit polls suggested that 5 percent of 2020 Biden voters backed Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate, while just 2 percent of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 supported Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat. “That only accounts for a few points,” Bacon notes, but given that Youngkin won by less than two percentage points, “those small shifts matter.”
So why are voters cooling toward the Democrats?
As Democrats make sense of their losses, “one fact stands out as one of the easiest explanations,” The Times’s Nate Cohn wrote. “Joe Biden has lower approval ratings at this stage of his presidency than nearly any president in the era of modern polling.”
Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?
Some argue that Biden is performing poorly because he has tacked too far left on policy. Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, told The Times: “Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.”
Others blame a more general political-cultural gestalt: “wokeness.” “Wokeness Derailed the Democrats,” the Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote last weekend. This line of argumentation has drawn criticism for being deliberately, even insidiously vague. But when it comes to last week’s elections, much of the “wokeness” debate, on both sides of the aisle, has revolved around the so-called critical race theory controversy in K-12 schools, which this newsletter explored at length in July.
There are strong counterarguments to both of these explanations. As Beauchamp writes, while Youngkin did at one point vow to ban what has disingenuously been called critical race theory in public schools, his campaign wasn’t nearly as focused on the issue as some pundits made it out to be. Nor does the “critical race theory” controversy explain the election results in New Jersey, where there was a similar backlash against Democrats despite the race’s not being “particularly culture-war focused.”
The Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argues that the real reason education was such an incendiary issue this election cycle “likely had less to do with critical race theory than with parent fury over the drawn-out nightmare of online school.” Zachary D. Carter agrees: “A lot of suburban parents lost faith in Virginia’s public schools over the past year, and as a result, they’re more open to conservative narratives about problems in public schools.”
As for the idea that the Democrats’ underperformance owes to Biden’s leftward shift on policy, one could just as easily — if not more easily — take the opposite reading of events: During his campaign, Biden openly aspired to a presidency that would rival or even eclipse that of F.D.R.; in office, however, his legislative agenda, which remains broadly popular, has been stripped down and delayed by his own party. Couldn’t disappointment, not backlash, be to blame for his party’s low turnout?
Some say that last week’s electoral shifts have even more general causes. Put simply, Americans are in a gloomy mood. A chief reason appears to be the pandemic, which has disrupted everyday life and the economy for longer than many expected.
In the words of The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, Democrats are losing the “vibe wars”: “Despite many positive economic trends, Americans are feeling rotten about the state of things — and, understandably, they’re blaming the party in power.”
3 trends worth watching
Republicans can succeed — and are perhaps even stronger — without Trump. As the G.O.P. pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson notes, Youngkin was able to enjoy the advantages of Trump — who over the past five years turned many formerly disengaged voters into habitual Republican voters — without incurring any of his liabilities. He did so mainly by neither embracing nor disavowing the former president.
“In the current political environment, the Trump coalition seems primed to turn out and stick it to the Democrats even if Trump isn’t on the ballot himself,” she writes. And that means that “trying to use the fear of Trump to hold on to swing voters doesn’t seem as viable a strategy for Democrats.”
Democrats’ problem with white non-college-educated voters is getting worse. For decades now, left-wing parties around the world have been losing support among their traditional working-class base. The Democratic Party has also suffered from this phenomenon, as the white electorate has become less polarized by income and more polarized by educational attainment.
That trend appeared to assert itself in Virginia’s election last week, according to FiveThirtyEight, as the divide between white voters with and without a college degree grew.
The writer and researcher Matthew Thomas argues that there are signs that the racial depolarization of the electorate may be accelerating: In New York’s mayoral election last week, he notes, Queens precincts that are more than 75 percent Asian swung 14 points toward Republicans from four years ago, while Queens precincts that are over 75 percent Hispanic swung 30 points toward Republicans.
“There’s no easy solution to the decades-long demobilization of working-class voters,” he writes. “But the left can’t afford to chalk up all of our defeats to whitelash alone. This country is in the midst of a profound realignment along axes of culture and education that are about to make race and class seem like yesterday’s news.”
So are Democrats — and free and fair elections — doomed?
As Bacon notes, the results from last week suggest that the Republican Party will suffer few electoral consequences in 2022 for its recent anti-democratic turn. “In normal circumstances, I’d see that as a bad thing, since my policy views are closer to the Democrats,” he writes. “But in our current abnormal circumstance, with U.S. democracy on the precipice because of the extremism of the current G.O.P., everyone needs to understand that normal could well be catastrophic.”
How should Democrats respond?
Some argue that they should tack to the center: “Congress should focus on what is possible, not what would be possible if Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and — frankly — a host of lesser-known Democratic moderates who haven’t had to vote on policies they might oppose were not in office,” the Times editorial board writes.
Samuel Moyn, a professor of history and law at Yale, thinks that’s precisely the wrong approach given the popularity of progressive economic policies: “Even if progressives were to secure a welfare package and retain influence in their party, Trump — or an even more popular Republican — could still win the presidency. But this outcome is a near certainty if the Democrats return to centrist form — as seems the likeliest outcome now.”
In the end, as Moyn suggests, policy may not have the power to save Democrats from defeat. As The Times’s David Leonhardt noted last week, some political scientists believe that Democrats overweight the electoral importance of policy and don’t talk enough about values.
And the values Biden ran on were, in effect, a liberal answer to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” creed, a promise to restore “the soul of America” to its former self. “Joe Biden promised normality, Americans got abnormality, and Democrats got punished at the polls for it,” Thompson writes in The Atlantic. “The path toward a more successful midterm election for Democrats in 2022 flows through the converse of this strategy. First, make things feel better. Then talk about it.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at email@example.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“What Moves Swing Voters” [The New York Times]
“The Powerful G.O.P. Strategy Democrats Must Counter if They Want to Win” [The New York Times]
“Bill Clinton Saved His Presidency. Here’s How Biden Can, Too.” [The New York Times]
“How to Rebuild the Democratic Party” [The New Republic]
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